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The Great War Of Archimedes

As a half-white Filipino American, I am not a neutral reviewer of The Great War of Archimedes, a Japanese movie about the construction of the battleship Yamato. I was raised on stories about the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. My grandfather served as a decoy for the resistance and my great-grandfather was a resistance fighter. A 14 year-old girl was married off to a 40 year-old man, so that she would not be taken as a comfort woman; that union produced an entire branch of my family.

The Great War of Archimedes

Archimedes (c. 287 BCE - c. 212 BCE) was a truly great inventor, mathematician and philosopher, writing many insightful and extensive treatises on geometry and applied mathematics. His work on pulleys and levers was a scientific landmark, one that would directly influence the work of both Islamic and Renaissance scholars.

Most of his inventions were designed to test his theories practically and he saw himself as a mathematician first, inventor second, although inventions such as the Archimedes screw are still used today. He is truly one of the greatest minds of all time, and earned his place in the history of science as one of the great scientists and mathematicians whose name echoes down through the ages.

One area in which Archimedes excelled was in the design and construction of great war machines, a useful talent in a dangerous world where his home city of Syracuse was under constant threat from the Romans. His legendary war machines struck fear into the Roman soldiers and sailors and ensured that Syracuse held out for three years against an extended Roman siege.

The evidence and knowledge of his work on machines of war comes to us second hand, from later historians such as Polybius, Livy, and Plutarch and, naturally, it picked up a lot of mythology and embellishment during the process. We will explore some of these great machines and see if any of them worked, helped by the work of experimental archaeologists.

Even if the Archimedes Claw did not exist, it is entirely possible that the Syracuseans installed beams to swing out and drop heavy weights on the decks of the attacking ships. Undoubtedly, the attacking forces came under a hail of stones and arrows from various war machines while approaching the walls, and these great beams would further demoralize the Roman sailors.

Historians tend to look at the Archimedes Claw and the Death Ray as the prime examples of the contributions of the inventor to protecting his home, but there is little doubt that it was the less distinguished weapons that had the greatest impact.

Talking about acting, the veterans in the movie are also great in their own differences, with Hiroshi Tachi as Yamamoto and Jun Kunimura as Nagano appearing calm and respectful, and Isao Hashizume as Shizuma always blowing a short fuse, being eager to offend in a loud voice, in a role he has perfected through the years. Tsurube Shofukutei also gives a memorable performance as Osato, a kind of a mentor who is also disillusioned and regretful.

Archimedes shows up in the most unexpected places: it is possible he is mentioned in the Bible. Ecclesiastes (9:14-16) says "There was a little city, and few men within it; and there came a great king against it, and besieged it, and built great bulwarks against it: Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city; yet no man remembered that same poor man.... The poor man's wisdom is despised." A century ago, Moriz Friedlander pointed out that this might be a version of the story of Archimedes in the siege of Syracuse--the simple citizen who humbled a great power only to be killed by a common soldier (1). Biblical scholars today would doubt his interpretation because Ecclesiastes is just telling us a story with a moral, but Friedlander did have a point. Archimedes indeed captured the public imagination of the ancient Mediterranean in a way no other scientist did.

The only certain date we have for Archimedes is his death in 212 B.C. as a victim of the second Punic War, the great World War of antiquity. Archimedes designed the clever defensive machines (including catapults that fired logs at the attackers) that allowed Syracuse to resist the Roman siege for 2 years. His inventions became a powerful symbol of how Greek wisdom could outwit Roman power. Despite the Roman general Marcellus' desire to save him, presumably because he wanted Archimedes' talents for Rome's benefit, Archimedes lost his life when the city fell.

And so Archimedes became the stuff of legend. We still hear more about him than about any other ancient scientist, although much of what is retold is unreliable. Nevertheless, valuable personal information occasionally occurs in his treatises. For example, in The Sand-Reckoner, Archimedes notes a result reported by an astronomer called Phidias, who--Archimedes mentions in passing--was his own father. The name is significant, because it shows that Archimedes did not hail from the aristocracy. The great sculptor of the [Parthenon in Athens was named Phidias and since then, the name was attached almost exclusively to artisans. Craftsmanship was little valued by the ancient elite, and any manual work was despised, such that members of the elite never gave their sons names that smacked of artisanal achievement. Thus, Archimedes' grandfather was, very likely, not an aristocrat but a humble artisan (2). 041b061a72

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